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Dead medium: Baird Mechanical Television, Part Two: Technical Introduction
From: Trevor Blake
Source(s): (((See Note 11.8)))


by Trevor Blake


Scotsman John Logie Baird had long been an entrepreneur

and inventor. When he was twelve he built his own

telephone. He had invested in chutney in the West Indies,

artificial diamonds in Glasgow and soap in London. In

1918 he held the patent for the Baird Undersock, a sock

worn beneath regular socks. In 1920, at the age of 31, he

began his life's work == the undercredited discovery and

development of television.

Beginning with a personal ad in the London Times

("SEEING BY WIRELESS: Inventor of apparatus wishes to

hear from someone who will assist [not financially] in

making working model"), Baird set out to build a working

television system using borrowed money and the material he

had at hand, which included darning needles, hat boxes, a

Rich Mix biscuit tin, sealing wax and a bicycle lantern.

His Nipkow disk was cut from an old tea chest.

In February 1923 he entered the shop of Hasting radio

dealer Victor Mill and asked for assistance, saying "I've

fitted up an apparatus for transmitting pictures and I

can't get it to go." Mills accompanied Baird back to his

laboratory/apartment and waved his hand in front of the

neon: when Baird shouted "it's here, it's here!", the

first real-time electronic moving picture in world history

occurred. Not long after Baird demonstrated his system to

the local press, but was evicted from his apartment.

Baird relocated to London and set up a second and

lab in Soho. Using ventriloquist dummies (better able to

withstand the intense heat and light of his equipment), he

succeeded in transmitting a televised image one yard

across his room. In March 1925 he gave the first public

demonstration of television, sponsored by Selfridge's

Department store.

A demonstration of television in January 1926 in

Baird's small, drafty attic apartment failed to impress

the Royal Institute, particularly when the long white

beard of one of the men became entangled in the mechanism.

In Autumn of the next year he transmitted eight miles, and

formed a company: Television Ltd.

The first recorded television images were made on 10"

wax disks called Phonovisors, no later than September 1927

in Baird's labs: he had been awarded a patent for this

technology the year before. Phonovisor disks captured

12.5 frames of 30-line resolution television per second.

Baird also patented Noctovision, the use of infrared light

in television, and demonstrated color television (using a

rotating filter system) in 1927.

By 1928, Baird Televisors sold for between 20 and 150

pounds (kits sold for 16 guineas). Baird's assistant

Benjamin Clapp travelled to New York City to receive the

first transoceanic television signal. The box of

equipment he used was labeled 'experimental radio

equipment' to prevent customs from seizing it as a

dangerous or profitable new technology.

It took two months before a break in the weather

allowed Clapp to see the image of Stukey Bill (((a.k.a.

"Stooky Bill"))), the ventriloquist dummy head used in the

Baird studio, but once the press was called in the event

received one inch headlines across the nation. On the way

home aboard the *Berengeria,* Clapp allowed the ship's

wireless operator to see his fiance in England via

television while 1,000 miles out at sea.

Eighteen licensed transmitters were in operation in

the United States by the late 1920s, transmitting faces

and silhouettes. General Electric's House of Magic

recorded synchronized sound and pictures in New York. In

1928 Bell Telephone transmitted a television image from

New York to Washington D. C. The threat of losing

television to the USA gave Baird leverage in convincing

the BBC to begin television transmission.

In 1928 Baird convinced a London surgeon to lend him

an eyeball removed from a young man's head. In his own


"As soon as I was given the eye, I hurried in a

taxicab to the laboratory. Within a few minutes I had the

eye in the machine. Then I turned on the current and the

waves carrying television were broadcast from the aerial.

The essential image for television passed through the eye

within half and hour after the operation. On the

following day the sensitiveness of the eye's visual nerve

was gone. The optic was dead. I had been dissatisfied

with the old-fashioned selenium cell and lens. I felt

that television demanded something more refined. The most

sensitive optical substance known is the nerve of the

human eye... I had to wait a long time to get the eye

because unimpaired ones are not often removed by

surgeons... Nothing was gained from the experiment. It

was gruesome and a waste of time."

The BBC began mechanical television transmission in

1929. In July 1930, the BBC transmitted Pirandello's play

"The Man with a Flower in His Mouth" in 240 lines of

resolution. The heads and shoulders of the actors were

shown as they spoke their lines and sat on a stool: when

another actor was to be shown, a screen was held before

the camera as the actors exchanged seats.

The Derby was televised in June 1931: a camera waited

at the finish line until the moment when the horses and

jockeys passed by. The BBC was transmitting four days a

week by August 1932.

By this time, Baird's financial backers began to

insist he look into the electronic television of Philo

Farnsworth. When Farnsworth travelled to England while

raising money in his legal battles with RCA/EMI, he met

with Baird and demonstrated his system. Baird explained

the superiority of his system to Farnsworth, but after

watching several minutes of cathode ray tube television he

left the room without a word.

Baird's sponsors gave Farnsworth $50,000 to supply

Baird with electronic television equipment. A fire that

nearly destroyed the Alexander Palace studios soon after

closed down the BBC, and when they reopened they were

fully committed to the electronic television of EMI.

After 1,500 successful mechanical transmissions, the

BBC was ready to switch to the EMI system. Beginning

September 1935, they held a final six-month trial, during

which the two systems were transmitted on alternate weeks

from Alexander Palace, 12 miles north of London. Studio A

used the EMI system, while Studio B used the Baird film

pickup system.

Baird's system lost, and on 2 November 1936 the BBC

transmitted the first high-definition television signal

using the EMI system. Many executives and technicians

were invited to the studio on opening day, but when Baird

showed up he was left wandering the halls, shut out from

celebrating the technology he had developed.

The final mechanical television transmission in

England occurred in February 1937.

Baird continued to develop television technology.

In 1940, he introduced the Telechrome, an electronic color

television system in which two electron guns scanned 600 -

650 lines on a white mica sheet coated with orange

phosphor on one side and blue-green phosphor on the

other. War time restrictions prevented full scale

production of the Telechrome. At the time of his death in

1946, John Logie Baird was working on stereoscopic


Trevor Blake
127 House - An Independent Archive of Systematic Ideology
P.O. Box 2321 Portland OR 97208-2321 USA - (503) 635-1796 -